Trucking is not the first place most people look to find female leaders, but if Iris Austin achieves her goal, the Volvo Group will pull ahead in both retention of women and in women advancing to top positions.
Austin is human resources business partner at Volvo in Greensboro, North Carolina, the corporate headquarters for Mack Trucks and Volvo Trucks North America. Earlier this year, with the support of her manager, Karin Hogberg, senior vice president of human resources, the 11-year Volvo veteran initiated an effort to help close a gender gap that can be seen just about anywhere in U.S. industry.
Austin launched an innovative six-month Women in Leadership program at Volvo. The 2,200-person campus has a well-documented commitment to inclusive hiring and even hosts an annual diversity inclusion week. So, it wasn’t hard to get management support when Austin saw an opportunity to help women who were already employed by the company develop their leadership skills for greater opportunities to advance.
Women in Leadership focuses on personal development and is designed to provide a channel for company leadership succession as it increases retention of female employees in a male-dominated industry.
“It’s not a local issue,” said Austin. “Globally, women only make up about 17 percent of corporate leadership.”
Product Manager Samantha Peloquin saw this firsthand. She came to Volvo Group from furniture manufacturing and the company’s commitment impressed her.
“The surprising thing for me was the lack of women in leadership everywhere, including in home furnishings, where most purchasing decisions are made by males,” said Peloquin. “It was a shock out of the gate for me. I found it empowering here that Volvo is exploring ways to empower women — people who look like me! They’re actually doing something about it.”
The Pilot Program
The first goal for Women in Leadership is retaining women by showing that interesting assignments, important roles and advancement opportunities are within reach. A big part of this is developing a level of confidence that many male employees have been more socialized to demonstrate.
“For men, when new jobs are open and there’s a requirement for, say, 10 things, they’ll apply even if they only have six,” said Austin. “Women tend to disqualify themselves if they lack any of the requirements. Women in Leadership offers the tools that our key talent needs to hone skills and confidence and help strengthen their personal brand.”
Fifteen women were selected for the pilot program and each was invited by e-mail. The invitation itself made a strong impression.
“Being nominated was like winning something,” said participant Tyletha Hubbard. “It felt good to know that I was considered a key talent in the organization.”
Women in Leadership began with a full-day session in January 2018 followed by six monthly half-day sessions. The first meeting was inspirational, featuring a panel discussion with a group of female leaders from the local community — owners and senior vice presidents — who shared their stories and encouraged the group to look for ways to develop their careers and how not to be hesitant to ask for new opportunities. The first session also introduced the idea of “personal brand” as a capstone project for each member of the group to begin developing.
Self-awareness and interpersonal communication were studied as basic leadership skills. Personality assessments with individual feedback were key throughout the program and revealed ways in which each person is most and least effective in collaborative environments, as well as how to more effectively engage with others.
“The experience really helps me daily in my position as a manager to communicate and lead my staff,” said Hubbard, who works in training and quality management. “Things you may have seen as a negative are turned into a positive, and we learned ways you can build upon those qualities. It changed me overall, both personally and at work.”
Sheri Masters, another program participant, came to Volvo after a stint in public schools.
“The assessments were very eye-opening,” said Masters, Volvo’s corporate communications manager. “I was a teacher, so I know everyone has different ways of communicating. We need to know, ‘How do I handle change?’ and develop an understanding of where I am and discover how I work best.”
Subsequent sessions covered “Understanding Self,” “Effective Communication,” “Influencing and Networking” and “Negotiation.” The final session was a special roundtable with the Volvo executive team that included each participant’s presentation of her personal brand via PowerPoint.
The personal brands were derived from the Women in Leadership learning experience and based on feedback from participants’ own personality assessments. Terms such as “collaboratively creative,” “responsibly bold” and “striving for transparency” defined each woman’s brand as they presented to the group.
“People have to know themselves intimately to sell themselves and see themselves in certain roles,” said Austin. “Confidence was a key outcome as we focused on how they present and deliver a certain message and on how they want to be perceived.”
Such skills can be important to advancement within the company. Volvo encourages employees to move laterally to different departments as a means of gaining new skills and growing individually within the organization. But to do this, it takes individual initiative to speak up and ask for the experiences.
Program Development and Results
To develop the program, Austin consulted with Donna Warrick of Jamesson Solutions, a locally based leadership development firm. Warrick designs workshops and training for corporate clients and has previously created programs for Volvo, such as Leading Across Generations.
“The Women in Leadership program is a powerful experience as much for gathering women in one space as for the curriculum itself,” said Warrick. “We use the same leadership development principles applied in any corporate engagement but having only women in the room achieved three things: The women felt more comfortable speaking up, the women made new networking connections with women within the company who they didn’t know before and — very important — women felt valued by management.”
Communication skills to overcome the challenges faced by women in the workplace — e.g., not assertive enough versus too assertive — are central to Women in Leadership.
“I’ve heard a lot of women say that it’s hard to be heard — to have a voice in the conversation,” said Masters. “This was something that is really valuable. It was not just checking off a box to say we’re diverse. It encouraged us to use our voices.”
With all the emphasis on women in the workplace, the benefits to the organization’s effectiveness should not be overlooked. Leadership is leadership, regardless of who’s doing it, and Women in Leadership is showing results by making participants more effective in their roles.
“I learned how to read a room,” said Peloquin. “I learned from assessments that someone being quiet doesn’t mean they’re not engaged. Some folks just need time to
process. Analyzers need time to think it through. You may have to ask for opinions versus wait for them.”
Peloquin said she’s already applied the learning in her team meetings on various projects. This has convinced her she can be more effective if she approaches co-workers on their own terms.
“You can’t always start with the big picture,” said Peloquin. “With some people you have to start with the small picture and work out from there. One co-worker actually said, ‘Thanks for getting in the weeds with me!’”
Commitment to Potential
Austin saw the need and led the way in launching the pilot in her capacity as an HR partner. Now she’s working with Volvo management to integrate Women in Leadership as part of Volvo Group University.
“Diversity and inclusion are at the core of our business and this program is excellent progress in continuing our journey in this area,” said Austin. “The program exceeded not only the expectations of management but the development and engagement of the women leaders in this program was very inspiring to see.”
Volvo Groups’ new program hinges on the idea that a commitment to hiring women needs to be matched with a commitment to encouraging women to realize their potential.